The first sequence of Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) unravels like a long bolt of silk let loose from the vertiginous upper balconies of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. A performance of Verdi’s Il trvovatore is underway, the aria climaxing with a near-riot breaking out amongst the Fenice’s patrons. It’s 1866, the Italians are getting restless, the Austrian occupation in its twilight. The War of Liberation is eminent. Nonetheless a romance ignites between the Italian Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) and the Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). You’ll note that their first exchanges are made with the opera being performed literally in the background of their two-shot, and it’s no accident. Visconti, scion of wealthy aristocrats with centuries of rule behind them, conflicted Communist, by then already a pretty major name in theatre and opera as well as cinema, unshakable in his vision and not to be rushed or compromised, uses this first sequence to lay the groundwork for what will be an absolute, go-for-broke, multilingual melodrama. So get ready.
The 1882 source novella by Camillo Boito, also entitled Senso, has Livia young, vain and inexperienced, but Visconti’s interpretation very smartly opts to make her older and more complex than Franz, with more to lose, and the brilliantly cast Valli, who was in fact four years older than Granger, actually seems over the course of the picture to look increasingly wrung dry by l’amour fou. Her naked shoulders, loose, waist-length hair and kittenish gaze in the early post-coital scene brim with fortifying eroticism, while the final scenes find her face strained and body seemingly unable to stay erect. Valli was still fresh from The Third Man (49), as was Granger from Strangers on a Train (50), so Senso was indeed something of a star-studded affair. Granger is even seductive at points, though the Italian version’s isn’t his voice, which makes an enormous difference. (Criterion’s new edition features the English version too, titled The Wanton Countess—with dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles!—as a supplementary feature.)
Yet, with all due respect to the story and performances, the most dynamic aspect of Senso however would arguably be its décors. Desire is the undoing of Livia, but it’s money that poisons Franz—but how could he not succumb to avarice when surrounded by such boundless luxury? Fabulous fabrics are endlessly flowing across the screen like a current of punch-drunk longing made tactile: veils, capes, bedclothes, night gowns, curtains, skirts that could provide shelter to entire families of very short people. The sets, the clothes, the furniture, the battlefields, the extras, those perfect patterns of grime on the doors of the Austrian officer’s dormitory: Visconti’s urge toward grandeur spared no expense. In fact, production ran three times longer than scheduled, went through three cinematographers (the first, Aldo Graziati, died), and finally bankrupted Lux Films. But watch how the look of everything in the film it what tells the story, from the morbid elegance and rich colours of Venice, to the final scenes in Verona, which looks like a sooty smudge, barren, used up, shadowy and blackened as an abandoned fireplace. It strikes me as apt that this story, which could be regarded as something of an adult, corrupted version of Romeo and Juliet, draws to its close in the very city where Shakespeare’s beloved teenage tragedy took place. More apt still that Visconti’s assistant director was none other Franco Zeffirelli (and if Granger’s memoir, excerpted in Criterion’s package, is to be trusted, Zeffirelli was also Visconti’s lover at the time), who would go on to helm the cinema’s most celebrated version of Romeo and Juliet (68). But then everything about Senso, maybe even the film’s failure to find international success, seems to conform to the dictates of destiny.